An Open Letter Regarding Preaching Preparation

A lay leader in our church sent me the following note.

Pastor talked about spending 20 hours a week on sermon prep, and it seemed that you and others thought this number to be in line with expectations. If that is the case, when do pastors have time to manage staff, build relationships, attend board meetings, etc.? It seems like we risk burning these guys out if we expect them to manage their time in this manner. Help me understand.

Dear Jim:
The standard I would hope to see, for excellence in the pulpit, is 15-20 hours. Assuming that a pastor works a 45-60 hour week, that is 1/3 of his time, for the most important single function of the senior pastor, the one which ministers to the whole congregation and potentially provides a cornerstone for the evangelism program of the church, the assimilation program of the church, the discipleship program of the church, casts visions, inspires, convicts, teaches, encourages, and brings unity. It is the one hour each week when God speaks to the whole congregation through His appointed messenger.

In preaching that comes from the deep places in the pastor’s life and spirit, when he has studied, reflected, prayed, written, said AHA to God a couple of times, sweated, prayed some more, written some more, studied some more, prayed some more, wept with blessing as the Spirit revealed Himself, reflected some more . . . the result of this is a preacher who has become possessed and anointed by God’s Spirit in a special way. To witness this kind of preaching is to realize that it is not just the pastor talking—it is God speaking through him or her.

Many pastors who are capable, confident public speakers can, and too often do, fall into the trap of relying too much upon shortcuts in this process. They get busy with “church administration” and other such demanding, time consuming duties. They spend less time in prayer, less time in the Word, less time studying and writing and reflecting, but they still feel they can do a “pretty good job” because they are well-trained, experienced, and they feel they are gifted and just do not need that much preparation time. I confess I have been guilty of this at times. The result, even if interesting and helpful, ends up being more limited to the human plane—more of man, less of God. In their own spirits, the congregation can discern this difference. Ten minutes into the next sermon, ask yourself: Is this pretty much just the man speaking? Or have I been hearing God speaking through him clearly?

This kind of sermon preparation is like digging for buried treasure. It is hard work in the hot sun or sometimes in the dark. That part is not very enjoyable. But then comes the moment of discovery. Eureka! This brings great joy—to find the BIG IDEA that God wants preached. What joy and fulfillment to step behind the pulpit with great anticipation, realizing that I have been obedient and faithful to seek and find God’s message for the day; to know I will communicate it with clarity and excellence; and to feel His pleasure. This kind of preaching sometimes astounds people, because they think it is just coming from the preacher and they didn’t think he was that good (which he really isn’t.). What really happens is, since it was the message the Holy Spirit wanted, He comes alongside the message and works in the hearts of the congregation, beforehand, during, and after the actual preaching. The preacher is cooperating with the Spirit.

Some preachers think that just happens automatically in the moment of stepping into the pulpit. They expect the Holy Spirit to cooperate with them and anoint their human message. I believe, and all of our preaching professors teach, that it is presumptuous to expect the Holy Spirit to bail us out every time when we have not spent serious time in prayer, study, and reflection. The congregation can tell when the Lord has met the pastor for long hours in his study as he has wrestled with the written Word. And the congregation can usually tell when the pastor is “winging it.”

Karl Eastlack was the senior pastor at Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church in the Buffalo, New York area. Nineteen people were present on his first Sunday at that church in 1987. They grew to over 3000 each Sunday morning. Karl is a very humble guy. He is an effective leader, a lover of people, and a good organizer. He is multi-gifted. Karl shared this testimony with some young preachers once:

We have been in this big capital campaign for the last several years and we have built this fabulous new sanctuary. I felt the demands on my time becoming overwhelming. In a desperate attempt to find more hours in my week, I began to cut back on my sermon preparation time. I cut back from 15 hours per week to 10, then 8, and over the course of time to only 4 hours of specific preparation. I was finding short cuts. I had been at this preaching thing so long that it had become easier and easier for me—I was pretty good at it. And I thought I was pulling it off. People still loved me. They still said thank you for the good message. The church did not seem to be suffering. Then one of my prayer partners in the church was talking to me one morning and shocked me with his question: “Karl, what are you doing differently in your sermon preparation than you were doing a year ago?” Immediately, I felt a stab of conviction in my heart, and poured out everything to my friend. We both knew that I had to get back to the Word and waiting on God for His message, for His power, for His excellence, which can only really be found in the hours of solitude with the Lord, immersed in the text, paying the price. I re-prioritized my schedule immediately and went back to 15 hours a week in study, prayer, and sermon-writing. I began to get messages from people—things like: “You’re back!” “The Holy Spirit is working powerfully again in our church.” And indeed, the Lord and I were back. Biblical preaching is not just a sermon from the Bible. It requires a preacher who is possessed by God’s message from the Word.

Steve DeNeff, at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, IN, brings a carefully modulated and powerful message from God every Sunday, with excellence. Everybody says he is so gifted. In a preaching class he stated:

Too many preachers are mediocre. They depend on education and natural speaking ability and experience, and really don’t put in the hours of sermon preparation each week. Of course they tell us in college and seminary that we are supposed to take twenty hours a week in sermon preparation, but that’s for somebody else. The truth is, almost nobody is smart enough and gifted enough to stand up there for a 30-40 minute monologue, with only a little preparation, and make it true to the Bible, excellent, and deliver an authentic message from God. Long ago, I made the commitment to do the hard twenty hours a week and bring as much excellence as I could every time. Sometimes it comes close to annoying me when people remark how “gifted” I am. “Hey, that’s not a gift! That’s blood, sweat, and tears! That’s a lot of hard work!”

The senior pastor needs to push everything away from himself that someone else can do, especially if others can do it as well or better. Many senior pastors want to keep in touch with everything that’s going on. They feel a need to be in control. Many are good administrators, and they find administration to actually be more fun than the hours of solitude with the Lord and studying and writing and focusing on the Word. Administration, and other pastoral tasks, may have more short-term rewards. You do this, and it’s done—you can cross it off your list. It’s more visible—people can see you are working hard. But much of that can and should be done by lay leaders in the church, or by other staff. The senior pastor should not try to be “omni-competent,” although congregations often seem to expect that of them.

In Acts 6:2-4 we see the apostles give leadership responsibility to the “laymen” so they could focus on the MAIN thing:

So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

I want my pastor to have God’s message for the congregation on Sunday morning. I want him to be fresh, to be prepared, to be possessed by the Spirit, to have meaty truth from the Word, to have God’s BIG IDEA for us. I want him to be excellent, because he will then be a reflection of God’s excellence. Sure, he needs to set the vision for the church and give overall leadership. Yes, he needs to supervise his staff. Yes, he needs to set the example on personal outreach and have loving involvement in peoples’ lives. But most senior pastors do lots of “stuff” that they really don’t have to do and they should have been getting ready for that divine appointment at 11:00am on Sunday. I think this could be one of the differences between an ordinary church and a great church.

Your friend and brother,


Kerry Kind is the General Director of Education & the Ministry of The Wesleyan Church.